OTTAWA — The St. Lawrence Seaway’s 50th anniversary celebrations this year were overshadowed by one of the worst years for traffic in the waterway’s history, and Richard Corfe sees only slow recovery next year and beyond.
By the close of the shipping season on Dec. 24, traffic through the Seaway will be about 30 million metric tons, 25 percent less than than 2008’s 40 million tons, the president of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. said in an interview with The Journal of Commerce.
“In our 50th anniversary year, we’ve done some good celebrating but the traffic level has been a disappointment,” Corfe said. “The 30 million tons will be our lowest cargo level since 1961 or 1962.”
Traffic should increase 8 to 10 percent next year, to perhaps 33 million tons, he said.
The Seaway’s problems are largely tied to steel-related bulk products, iron ore and coal and coke, which are down about 50 percent combined from 2008 as Canadian and American steel plants shut down their furnaces.
“It’s going to be a slow climb back,” Corfe said. “Our concern is that these traditional cargoes, particularly iron ore and coal, are going to be slow-recovering cargoes and ultimately may never come back.”
Corfe believes North American car buying, after getting a lift from the U.S. Cash-for-Clunkers program, is likely “to flatten through the first part of 2010 anyway,” hitting steel production. Longer term, he cited consolidation for big steel and automakers and changing production patterns — with less occurring around the Great Lakes — as detrimental to Seaway shipping.
For the Seaway to remain viable, it must diversify from the usual 90 to 95 percent emphasis on bulk shipping “to more of a 75 percent to 25 percent split,” Corfe said. The Canadian and U.S. Seaway administrations are encouraging more project shipping by barges — such as heavy wind generation equipment into the U.S. Midwest and oil-processing equipment for the Alberta tar sands — and more breakbulk and containerized shipping.
Like U.S. Administrator Collister Johnson Jr., Corfe sees prospects for short-sea shipping, especially in light of the new ship-barge service started between the Port of Hamilton, Ontario, and Montreal. He says Hamilton’s lead has sparked talks with some U.S. ports — Cleveland, Toledo and others on “potential start-up movements” of a similar nature.
Canadian Seaway tolls — the U.S. charges no tolls at its two locks — will be frozen for the 2010 season, for the third consecutive year, Corfe said, and a 20 percent discount on tolls will continue for new cargoes, new shipping line entrants and new destinations, he said.